One measure of how workplace communications have changed during the COVID‑19 pandemic, and perhaps for the longer term, is rubber chickens. At least that's the case at Sezzle, a fast-growing electronic payments company in Minneapolis, where the pandemic response included forming the Sezzle Society of Fun and Amusement (SOFA).

Under SOFA's outreach program, Sezzle — making its debut at No. 4 this year on the Star Tribune's Top Workplaces list — sends company swag to employees who in turn send each other random gifts.

The goal is "to keep joy in the workplace," general counsel Candice Ciresi said. "The fact that I have personally received no less than half a dozen rubber chickens in the mail makes me believe that it is working."

That's just one of the ways that Sezzle and other midsize Top Workplaces have adapted to support and entertain employees working remotely during the pandemic while also keeping them engaged and informed about the business.

Elsewhere, Bluestone Physician Services' "cameras on" policy has added humor to its video meetings. Hunt Electric Corp. has found that participation rose when it held companywide meetings with smaller groups of employees.

The guided health service firm MOBE, also a first-time Top Workplace, launched all-hands video meetings every other Friday, alternating those with "Fun Fridays."

Such adaptations likely will continue to some degree in part because even as offices reopen, many workplaces won't be the same. Employers adopting "hybrid" models combining work-from-home with limited office time will still need to communicate with employees wherever they work.

At Sezzle, less than 14% of employees want to return to the office full time, Ciresi said. Even before the pandemic, a quarter of Sezzle's 300 employees worked remotely because they lived outside Minneapolis.

"When you're going remote you miss that humanity," Ciresi said. "You miss that laughing and talking to people sitting next to you. That elbow-to-elbow time is gone. It's really hard in a technological setting to make people want to come to work. Because if the only thing they're doing is to come to work to crank out the next document or the next product, sometimes the value gets diminished. This way, they want to wake up and walk down the hall and log on."

Cameras on

At Bluestone Physician Services, Dr. Todd Stivland, CEO of the nine-time ranked Top Workplace, was surprised that half its 130 office employees now want to work at home at least half of the time. Most of Bluestone's 470 total employees are involved in providing physician-led health care services to residents of group homes and assisted living communities in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Florida and Virginia.

Only 7% of those surveyed wanted to return to the office full time at Stillwater-based Bluestone, Stivland said, so the company is working out details of a hybrid model.

With videoconferences a part of Bluestone's hybrid future, Stivland has instituted a "cameras on" policy for everyone, "no matter how many days it had been since they showered."

"We had a lot of fun making fun of people's hair and their background, kids running through and shooting them with Nerf guns and things like that," Stivland said. "Turning the cameras on really helped a lot getting people engaged."

While working from home can be productive, Stivland wonders about how those employees will get mentored, how they will build relationships at work, what may replace the "hallway chatter" between people on different projects that leads to new ideas or solutions.

"I think that's going to be a challenge, staying in contact with people you may not have meetings with," Stivland said. "How do you get them mentored, trained and advanced?"

Small groups

Hunt Electric president and CEO John Axelson finds that presenting companywide updates in multiple video sessions with 10 to 20 employees at a time is more effective than having the Bloomington-based contractor's 240 office employees gather in a hotel conference room.

"They've been much more engaged and are asking more questions," Axelson said. "We were maybe fortunate to get two or three questions and now by breaking this up, we're averaging somewhere between 12 and 20 questions a session."

MOBE's all-hands video meetings have been so well attended, Cronin said, that the company now hosts its quarterly town hall meetings online and will keep a virtual element to them. Half of the company's 250 employees work remotely around the country, and most haven't attended the town halls in person.

"It's actually really helped strengthen the fabric of the company," Cronin said. "If our employees aren't healthy and happy, they can't support the people that they're trying to get healthy and happy."

Todd Nelson is a freelance writer in Lake Elmo. His e-mail is